It would be ironic if American politicians were insufficiently ambitious to sustain a system predicated on “ambition counteracting ambition."
Looming over politics in 2012 was Franklin Roosevelt’s admonition in his Second Bill of Rights speech (his 1944 State of the Union Address) for the creation of security. To revive its founding, the government must guarantee various now-fundamental rights including the “right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;” the right to “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;” and “the right to a good education.” Together, “All of these rights spell security.”
In this view, security is the highest aim of American politics: “Necessitous men are not free,” FDR insisted. He wanted to replace the Declaration’s pursuit of happiness with security. And the rights involving employment and other forms of security are to be realized, he implies, through the final right he lists, the “right to a good education.” This right of all rights is the key to all freedoms.
But what is this “good education”? How does higher education promote liberty? In fact, universities have become schools for slavery, not of freedom—both in the content of their teaching and now in the practical lessons they teach. The college debt issue illustrates this bondage beautifully. Debtors are of course not free men and women (even if their debts are huge enough to sink the lender). Not to mention that what colleges have been teaching is not conducive to liberty either.
College debt, with its burdens on graduates, epitomizes how colleges have shrunk their freedom. Their four plus years have freed them neither for work nor for a life beyond work, neither for the necessities of life nor for its purposes. In fact, their debt may leave them in a worse position to pursue either than before they began their costly studies.
Enlightened by Christopher DeMuth, I find two types of debt—one narcissistic and morally blameworthy, the other shrewd and at the heart of a modern commercial republic. Debt for the sake of personal consumption (an exotic vacation, for example) signifies a lack of republican or self-governing virtue. But borrowing for the sake of investment is prudence and essential for personal well-being and a flourishing modern economy. Jefferson and Hamilton belong together. Frugality and the Franklin virtues should shape sensible purchases of modest homes or useful cars. Until recently, going into debt to attend college seemed an act of prudence, a sensible investment toward a better job and classier friends. And clever parents might convert the low-interest student loan into subsidies for their own expenses.
But with diminished job prospects in a grim economy what seemed like a good investment appears more like self-indulgent consumption debt, a four-year splurge of languor, parties, study abroad, and the enjoyments of youth. The dramatically escalating costs of higher education have made this debt a risky bet, a careless gamble. For not even bankruptcy can free the student loan defrauder.
And why should universities reduce expenses? The ready availability of loans reduces the incentive for them to scrutinize their budgets.
Besides, the government can make loan-forgiveness offers to the advantage of the administrative state. In a recent policy shift government forgiveness programs target employment in government (of course) and in the non-profit sector (though not in religious institutions, as with the HHS mandate). Thus the bureaucracy subsidizes at public expense the poor or frivolous education choices, who can be redeemed by this and other liberal policies.
Tragedy follows on this Rube Goldberg absurdity. Minority students, who have at least as much or even more faith in the power of education to transform their lives, are often the most cruelly exploited victims of increasing tuition. The mismatch of relatively less qualified minority students with highly selective university reduces their chance of success at such a school. They might well have succeeded and graduated at a school for which they were more appropriately matched. Race-based scholarships further distort minority enrollment. Most questionable of all, the Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger would allow admission of minority students to a state institution because they help form part of a minority “critical mass”—an utterly dehumanizing rationale for a student’s admission. And the minority student enrollment justifies a huge diversity industry in higher education, featuring a lavishly funded minority bureaucracy supporting ethnic studies and multiculturalism. Yet all this might disappear, but the fundamental problem of the liberal arts college would remain.
For college debt cannot be separated from college education and its purposes, high as well as utilitarian. The goal of college or advanced education is liberal education, the art of being free in mind and in soul, mentally and politically. But we cannot be free and enslaved by debt. Thus, the theory and practice of the academy is the opposite of instruction in liberty—and the enslavement to debt is the practical expression of their lost academic mission.
And what do students learn in school? They want careers, not wisdom, and first they need to have knowledge of their ignorance. They are not ready for a Socratic turn. The rare situation where an instructor can liberate their minds is by chance on both sides, with chance being reduced with the selectivity of the school. Can most students imagine their lives might be transformed by the books they read? As ridiculous as Doonesbury’s classics professor who would protest his low salary by putting himself on the open market.
(Everyone has their own favorite examples of the Orwell saying about an idea being so stupid that only an intellectual could believe it. Here’s mine: According to more than one first-hand report, students at highly selective universities were stockpiling contraceptives for fear that a President Romney would have them banned. One side had its low-brow birthers, the other its sophisticated birthcontrollers.)
Until fairly recently Americans have based their lives on embracing independence. In Democracy in America Tocqueville describes the American as having learned “from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its power only when he cannot do without” (italics added). Independence and self-government were ingrained in Americans. But when will the realm of assistance expand, making it easier for the individual to call upon the state? Tocqueville’s fears have come to pass, as more Americans call upon a central government with centralized administrative power to relieve them of their self-imposed burdens.
In both its content as well as its cost, higher education has too often had the opposite result of its original intention. It has produced absorption in mass life, where it should have brought forth distinction; dependency, instead of freedom. Liberal education, to recall Leo Strauss’s penetrating essays, would make its students free in mind and in action, lovers of wisdom and guardians of freedom, “the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness,” in James Madison’s words.
Is this too lofty a view of liberal education? Did not the sober Tocqueville urge that the teaching of Greek and Roman classics be confined to a few institutions, to give balance to the money-making focus of most Americans? But his admonition here should be qualified by the changes in our mores. Tocqueville points out that he first read Shakespeare’s Henry V in a frontier cabin. Today we need colleges to teach the Shakespeare (and other works) that were part of the earlier common culture. Certainly the academy has discovered infinite ways to assail greatness, but ingenuity can find ways of cherishing it as well.
Is college worth it? Only the liberal arts justify the original mission of the university. And in a free society only a flourishing economy makes such institutions possible (and even remotely affordable). Only the liberal arts can transform debt for personal consumption into debt as investment in incorruptible riches. And only through such efforts will there be free men and women—the best public security of happiness.